Copyright 2002 The Globe and Mail, Bell GlobeMedia Interactive

The Globe and Mail

November 16, 2002


LENGTH: 1,284 words
SECTION: Arts; page R7
HEADLINE: The brainy music of Aimee Mann
BYLINE: Robert Everett-Green


The brainy music of Aimee Mann

Her lyrics are about the chaos of being human, writes
ROBERT EVERETT-GREEN, and songwriting is her cure

You've got a problem with a neighbour. You want to talk it over, but he's more interested in acting out his anger. You really can't communicate, and you'd rather just forget the guy, but you can't get him out of your head.

Hell, he's right inside your head, on the other side of the cerebral fibres that link the rational left side of the brain with the intuitive right.

It's a tale of two hemispheres, left and right, and to some extent it's going on in every skull on the planet. Which means that Aimee Mann's potential audience should be in the billions.

Her actual draw isn't that big yet, though a billion people probably did see and hear her perform her Academy Award-nominated song Save Me on Oscar night two years ago. Mann was the brainiest musician to happen to the Oscars since -- well, since Randy Newman played a few minutes earlier.

Mann's songs and sensibility permeated the much-lauded film Magnolia,which like many of her darkly comic songs, deals with people struggling to figure out why they keep doing things that mess up their lives.

Her general explanation of why they do that -- and of how she writes songs about it -- begins and ends in the physiology of the brain.

Not many songwriters can wax eloquent on that subject. But when the troubled dealings between the right brain (thought to be the seat of the emotions) and the left (which controls speech) came up during our chat last week at a Toronto hotel, Mann's demeanour changed from politely wary to downright fervent.

"The right brain wants to tell a story, but has no language," she said. "So it tells the story by acting out or projecting, or internalizing things in ways that can make you sick . . . My big theory is that interpreting information from the right brain to the left brain can alter brain chemistry." Change the chemistry, and the behaviour changes too, possibly making a troubled life a little less miserable.

In her view, songwriting is all about doing that work of interpretation.

Mann's lyrics are some of the most literate on the scene today, but rather than writing the words and then finding a tune to hang them on, she almost always begins with the music.

"Music is right brain, and lyrics are very left," she said. "I listen to the music, and think, 'What is this about?' And the lyrics become that story, or the commentary on the story that's in the music."

Humpty Dumpty, the first song on her recent album Lost in Space, happened just that way. It was only when she had found music for the chorus (with no words written as yet) that she understood that the song was about a protagonist's realization that the one she loves had better stand clear, because (as she eventually wrote) "Baby, I'm pouring quicksand/ and sinking is all I had planned."

"The chorus sounded so triumphant, but sad," she said. "It sounded like an epiphany, but a really sad one."

Mann's music is full of such epiphanies. But however hopeless her characters may sound about their prospects for happiness, she has surprising faith in people's potential ability to sort themselves out.

"I'm not particularly hopeless," she said. "I think I have an overarching optimism. I believe that there's a solution to every problem, and an answer to every question. Order can be made out of chaos -- I really do believe that. But you've got to get out and do the work.

"People's behaviour can seem really chaotic, without cause and effect. But if you look closely, you see that there is cause and effect. People's reactions are knowable and understandable, and that's a wonderful thing. . . . If there's a song where the protagonist is saying, 'I can't connect with anybody, I feel hopeless,' I think, 'Well, we've defined the problem.' "

If you think that sounds like a therapist talking, you're almost right. Mann's interest in "the talking cure" (which she takes regularly) and neuro-psychology is such that she often tips her therapist to interesting new papers in journals such as Cerebrum.

"I think of therapy as a class, where I'm always learning things about human behaviour," she said.

"I'm not arrogant enough to think I can solve all my problems, so I'm happy to have a second opinion."

Her songs typically grow from observations about her own behaviour, that of others, or a mixture of the two. Guys Like Me, a witty number about emotional dissociation, was modelled partly on Toronto comedy writer Rob Cohen.

"I love this guy, and he's so detached," Mann said. "I can really relate to that, because I'm detached in a lot of ways that are problematic." The guys of the title, she said, aren't necessarily male. It was just an easier word to use than persons.

Mann has a lot of comedian friends, mostly in her current home of L.A., and one of them turned her on to the work of Canadian graphic novelist Seth. The depressive comedy of his Palookaville stories seemed very much in tune with her own outlook, so she contacted Seth and flew him to New York, where she was working on Lost in Space.

"He's not remotely depressive," she said. "He's very cheery and dry and ironic. He lives in the past, and never listens to modern music. He had never heard of my stuff."

The booklet for Lost in Space includes several Seth drawings that will seem eerily familiar to anyone who has spent time in small towns in Southern Ontario, and a couple of full-page graphic narratives. There's also a very characteristic portrait drawing of Mann, with her hair hanging straight around a wan face whose eyes don't meet yours no matter how you look at them.

It's a very different appearance from the one found on her early albums with 'Til Tuesday, the Boston-based band for which she wrote and sang during the eighties.

In those days, postpunk glamour was on the agenda, which was mostly set by a record industry whose preconceptions (and misconceptions) about the kind of musician Mann was or should be finally drove her away from the big labels.

Her last solo album, Bachelor No. 2, appeared on her own SuperEgo label, after she ended a long standoff by buying the rights back from Geffen/Interscope. She has no regrets about going fully solo.

"There's no downside," she said.

"This way I don't have to listen to all those comments about how there's no single."

Lost in Space marks another parting of ways, with long-time producer Jon Brion. It was nothing dramatic like the record-company breakup, she said, just an organic divergence of paths.

"I just don't really see him much any more," she said. "I think people drift apart, and move on to other things. And Jon is somebody who plays everything. It's really easy to sit back and let somebody make my record for me, but it doesn't really help me develop myself as a musician."

She's touring the Lost in Space stuff now, though new songs are already coming.

But there won't be any with her husband Michael Penn, a singer-songwriter whose own career was well-established before they married in 1998.

"We're bad collaborators, because neither of us really wants to write with anyone else," she said. "But I might write a song with Joe Henry, because he's a friend of mine and he has two kids. I don't know how else we'd set aside the time to get together."

Like she said, there's a solution for every problem.

Aimee Mann performs on Buffy the Vampire Slayer on Tuesday.